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Friday Forum: The bittersweet bowl season

This is the last drip of college football we’ll get for months. Is it really better than having none?

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl - Michigan v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

I’m not sure that I’ve made this emphatically clear before just now on this here website, but: I really, really don’t like bowl season.

The bowls that have existed for a century or so? They’re cool, I guess. The Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl are all civic institutions in their various locales. My mom grew up in Miami, and spent her childhood in Florida; she remembers, in a time without widespread color television, the Orange Bowl Parade being a very cool thing to watch on TV around the New Year. I’m sure that Angelenos and New Orleanians have similar things to say about the Rose Bowl Parade and, uh, the slightly higher rate of public drinking in New Orleans around the Sugar Bowl, too.

Every bowl in the New Year’s Six has been played continuously since 1971, and four of the five date back to at least the 1930s. (In 1930, the cities that more or less play host to the other two had about 270,000 and about 50,000 residents; the latter of those was in a state that had been part of the Union for less than 20 years.) Those bowls are historic, beloved, and institutional. They deserve to exist.

Most of the rest exist because someone wanted to put a game on TV.

Only four other bowls — of the astounding 40 that will be played this year, not counting the National Championship Game — are older than the Fiesta Bowl, established in 1971. Just two others were established before 1986. That means that 29 of the 40 bowl games being played this postseason are no more than 30 years old.

Of those, 20 were first played this millennium. And of those, an absurd seven have been brought into existence since 2014.

The 80 teams that will play in these bowls this year are all deserving of postseason play, because there’s really naught but an arbitrary standard of “winning” that merits postseason inclusion anymore. 20 of the 80 don’t have winning records at the moment. (I’m not doing the math on this, but it would be extraordinarily difficult for 80 teams in a 130-team FBS to finish 6-6 or better, I suspect.)

Two are 5-7, and cannot finish the year with a winning record, but could conceivably finish the year three games under .500 because they were rewarded with a bowl berth — and one of those two teams, Mississippi State, is the biggest favorite to win any game this postseason per ESPN’s Football Power Index, thanks in part to playing a Miami of Ohio team that started the year 0-6 and lost to Eastern Illinois, best known as Tony Romo’s alma mater.

Six other teams are 6-6 and will play other 6-6 teams in these bowls. One of those games will take place in New Orleans on Saturday night; the other two take place in Detroit and Shreveport on December 26.

What a reward playing in a bowl game the day after Christmas in Shreveport must be for every person in a football program!

If this seems like a bitter outlook, it’s because it is: Bowls are money-losing propositions for virtually every party involved in them except ESPN — which owns and operates 13 bowls, including three of the seven established since 2014, despite the rise in hits for Google searches of “ESPN belt tightening” of late — and the bowl committees themselves. And while players do get swag, and those bowl committees do charitable work in their local communities, those two positives can’t make the net negative of drains on athletic departments that force non-professional players to play a 13th or 14th game that they must prepare for around exams.

If 30 bowls ceased operation tomorrow, college football would be better for it. I firmly, completely believe that.

And yet: People love bowls. Or they love watching them on TV, anyway.

Ratings for the College Football Playoff semifinals played on New Year’s Eve were down in 2015, causing much consternation and hand-wringing about the (lack of) wisdom of counter-programming America’s biggest night of revelry with football. But ratings for the other four bowls in the New Year’s Six were all up, and so were ratings for most other bowls.

This paragraph may not seem illustrative, but it is:

Six bowl games saw an increase of more than 65 percent in viewership: AutoZone Liberty Bowl (113), Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (104), Capital One Orange Bowl (75), Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl (73), GoDaddy Bowl (71) and Raycom Media Camellia Bowl (66).

Before looking it up, I had literally no idea what teams played in three of those bowl games — and I had to think about the Cotton and Orange Bowl teams. I knew the Las Vegas Bowl pitted rivals BYU and Utah, which probably explains the ratings bump, and the Cotton/Orange “bumps” are about switching status from New Year’s Six game to semifinal.

But my best guesses for the bumps in viewership for the other three bowls are that the GoDaddy and Camellia Bowls featured Appalachian State and Georgia Southern making their first bowl appearances ever, and the Liberty Bowl featuring SEC and Big 12 teams (Arkansas and Kansas State) and being the only thing on in its afternoon time slot on January 2.

Arkansas won that game, 45-23, more than doubling Kansas State’s yardage in the process. It was, by any reasonable account, a fairly uninteresting game for fans of teams not in it.

It also drew a 4.4 rating, the best in the Liberty Bowl history of being televised by ESPN and the best of any non-New Year’s Six bowl on the network, and a 1.7 rating among adults from 18 to 49. To put that in perspective, just two of the dozens of primetime broadcasts airing on broadcast networks last week pulled better than a 4.4 rating among the coveted 18-49 demographic — and they were the two NFL games that aired on NBC — and that demographic rating would have tied the Liberty Bowl for No. 15 on the week.

To reiterate: The 2016 Liberty Bowl, a game you probably did not watch or think of, was still watched by more people than almost anything on a given week on broadcast television, which is still far more widely available than the cable channel that aired the game. Bowls do numbers, and thus the number of bowls keeps going up.

So I realize I’m a contrarian on this, or at least part of a vocal minority ESPN and other networks can safely ignore while operating and airing bowl after bowl. And I’m fine with that.

But I can work against it, I think. And so my question to you is this: Would it be all right with you all if I wrote a bunch of bowl game open threads the way I want to?